Occupational Certificates: Examining Student Characteristics and Enrollment Outcomes Across the Public and For-Profit Sectors
by Lyle McKinney, Andrea Burridge & Moumita Mukherjee - 2017
Background/Context: Sub-baccalaureate certificates can provide an accelerated pathway to gainful employment for the unemployed or underemployed. Certificates represented only 6% of postsecondary awards in 1980, but today they represent 22% of all credentials awarded and have superseded associate’s and master’s degrees as the second most common award granted by U.S. postsecondary institutions. Although enrollment in certificate programs has skyrocketed, empirical research on this student population is scarce.
Focus of the Study: The purpose of this study was to compare the demographic characteristics, college financing strategies, and enrollment outcomes of occupational certificate students across the three institutional sectors: community colleges, public career and technical centers, and sub-baccalaureate for-profit institutions.
Research Design: The data were derived from the Beginning Postsecondary Student Study (BPS:04/09) conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. The sample included students across the three institutional sectors who enrolled in a sub-baccalaureate certificate program that was occupationally focused (unweighted n =1,770). Data analysis included descriptive statistics, logistic regression, and multinomial regression techniques.
Findings: Six years after initial enrollment, certificate students beginning at for-profits had the lowest rates of credential completion but were much more likely than public sector students to have taken out loans and defaulted during repayment. Seventeen percent of certificate students beginning at a community college transferred to another institution at some point, suggesting that these programs can serve as a stepping stone to further education. Results from the regression models indicated that students’ race/ethnicity, income status, field of study, and institutional sector were associated with successful certificate completion and/or transfer.
Conclusions: Equipped with a better profile of certificate students and their educational outcomes, colleges can begin to design better support services and program structures that address the unique needs of this growing student population. These institutional efforts, along with well-designed public policies that boost the production of high-quality certificates, could help strengthen the U.S. workforce and increase educational attainment rates among students from less advantaged backgrounds.
The sub-baccalaureate certificate is the least understood, and least studied, credential awarded by institutions of higher education. Whereas certificates represented only 6% of postsecondary awards in 1980, today they represent 22% of all credentials awarded and have superseded associates and masters degrees as the second most common award granted by U.S. postsecondary institutions (Carnevale, Rose, & Hanson, 2012). Most certificates (81%) are offered in occupational fields of study and are designed to prepare students with the technical knowledge and applied skills needed to succeed in a specific job role (Hirschy, Bremer, & Castellano, 2011). As a key component of career and technical education (CTE) in the United States, occupational certificates serve an increasingly vital societal role by reducing poverty, putting displaced workers back to work, and meeting the changing demands of local labor markets (Bailey & Belfield, 2013; Bailey et al., 2003; Bosworth, 2011).
Certificate programs are typically classified by length of instruction and field of study (Bosworth, 2010; Carnevale et al., 2012). Short-term certificates are designed for completion in less than one academic year and currently represent about 54% of all certificate program offerings. Medium-term certificates (41% of all such programs) are intended to be completed in at least one year but not less than two years, whereas long-term certificates (5% of all such programs) are designed to take between two and four years to complete. The most popular field of study for certificate programs by far is health care, representing about 44% of all certificates awarded (Bosworth, 2010). Other popular fields of study for certificates include manufacturing, mechanical and repair technology, transportation trades, culinary arts, and business (Bosworth, 2010; Horn & Li, 2009).
In 2012, the majority of all certificates (51%) were awarded by public community and technical colleges, followed by private for-profit (45%) and private nonprofit (4%) institutions (Carnevale et al., 2012). The growing demand nationally for certificate programs is exemplified by a 242% increase in the number of certificates awarded by community colleges alone over the past two decades (Mullin, 2011). Public higher education systems in many states, however, have increasingly left the delivery of certificate education to the for-profit sector (Bosworth, 2011). For example, for-profit institutions in New Jersey award approximately 87% of all certificates in that state (Carvenale et al., 2012). But as results from the present study will show, this may not be a sound strategy for increasing a states postsecondary attainment rates, particularly among students from less advantaged backgrounds.
Labor market projections suggest that by 2018, the U.S. workforce will need 4.7 million new workers with postsecondary certificates (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010). Presently, sub-baccalaureate certificates are not counted in many indicators of U.S. postsecondary attainment rates. Several reports assert that certificates play a vital role in strengthening the U.S workforce and should therefore be included in overall measures of college attainment and completion (Bosworth, 2010; Carnevale et al., 2012; McPhail, 2011). A common message from these reports is that increasing certificate production has been an underutilized, and often ignored, strategy for increasing the nations production of human capital. In 2010, Complete College America advocated for a national goal of doubling the number of certificates produced within five years, and then doubling that number again by 2020 (Bosworth, 2010).
Despite the growing demand for certificate training, empirical research on this student population remains scarce, as researchers have primarily been concerned with students pursuing more advanced levels of postsecondary attainment. Most research on certificates has focused on the labor market returns associated with holding this postsecondary credential, compared with other levels of educational attainment (e.g., Bailey & Belfield, 2013; Bailey, Kienzl, & Marcotte, 2004; Bosworth, 2010; Carnevale et al., 2012; Grubb, 1997, 2002). The present study extends the literature on certificate students by using a nationally representative, longitudinal data set to identify the demographic factors and enrollment behaviors associated with successful completion of an occupational certificate. These findings can be used to inform public policies, as well as institutional practices, that boost certificate production.
Moreover, the employability and loan default rates of students pursuing career-focused training programs, particularly at for-profit colleges, have come under increased scrutiny from consumer advocacy groups and federal lawmakers, resulting in gainful employment regulations (Blumenstyk, 2014). In a case illustrating wider concerns about the predatory practices of some for-profit colleges, Corinthian Colleges Inc. abruptly closed in 2015 following investigations that revealed the institution had falsified job placement rates. Notably, the Department of Educations decision to forgive Corinthian students federal loan debt will result in substantial costsan estimated $3.5 billionfor taxpayers (Lewin, 2015). Such cases highlight the need to better understand to extent to which for-profit institutions, relative to public sector colleges, are providing students in occupational programs with a financially viable pathway to a postsecondary credential.
Whereas several studies have compared student outcomes across the public and for-profit sectors (Cellini, 2012; Deming, Goldin, & Katz, 2012, 2013), the present study represents a unique contribution to this line of inquiry by focusing specifically on students enrolled in occupational certificate programs. This study compares certificate students debt levels and default rates across institutional sectors because these are key metrics used in the gainful employment regulations. This information, coupled with data on completion rates, can provide students who are considering pursuing an occupational certificate with guidance on which type of postsecondary institution may be most effective in helping them achieve their educational goals.
The purpose of this study was to examine the characteristics and outcomes of students enrolled in occupational certificate programs across three institutional sectors: public community and technical colleges (public two-year); public career and technical centers (public less-than-two-year); and sub-baccalaureate private for-profit colleges (for-profit less-than-four-year). Collectively, these sectors provide the majority of certificate program offerings in the United States (Carnevale et al., 2012; Horn & Li, 2009). Three research questions guided this study:
What are the demographic characteristics of students enrolled in certificate programs across institutional sectors?
To what extent are there differences in how certificate students pay for college as a function of their institutional sector?
What factors increase the likelihood of program completion or transfer among certificate students across institutional sectors?
For the purposes of this study, it is important to distinguish between different types of alternative credentials, including certifications, licenses, and educational certificates. The U.S. Department of Education (Bielick, Cronen, Stone, Montaquila, & Roth, 2013) has developed the following working definitions for each of these credentials.
Certification. A credential awarded by a certification body based on an individual demonstrating, through an examination process, that he or she has acquired the designated knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform a specific job. The examination can be written, oral, or performance based. Certification is a time-limited credential that is renewed through a recertification process.
License. A credential awarded by a licensing agency based on predetermined criteria. The criteria may include some combination of degree attainment, certifications, certificates, assessment, apprenticeship programs, or work experience. Licenses are time limited and must be renewed periodically.
Educational certificate. A credential awarded by a training provider or educational institution based on completion of all requirements for a program of study, including coursework and tests or other performance evaluations. Certificates, as an academic award, are not time limited and do not need to be renewed.
The focus of the present study was on educational certificates, and the analysis does not include data on students pursuing certifications or licenses. Perhaps the most notable difference between educational certificates and these other alternative credentials is that certificates are awarded by educational institutions and do not have to be renewed once earned. In some states, educational certificates are more commonly referred to as technical diplomas.
This review focuses on three topical areas in presenting key findings from the limited body of extant research on certificate students: the background characteristics of students who pursue certificates, trends in how these students pay for higher education, and factors associated with successful completion of this credential. Given the goals of the study to better understand outcomes across institutional types, the review gives particular attention, when possible, to differences in certificate students experiences across the public and for-profit sectors.
CHARACTERISTICS OF CERTIFICATE STUDENTS
Studies show that certificate students differ in several important ways from students enrolled in more traditional academic degree programs (e.g., Alfonso, Bailey, & Scott, 2005; Hirschy et al., 2011; Levesque et al., 2008). In general, certificate students are more likely to be female, students of color, age 25 or older, lower income, married, and first-generation in college; to report having a disability; to have taken vocational curriculum in high school; and to have earned a GED. Clearly, certificate students enter higher education with numerous factors that place them at heightened risk for nonsuccess. As Bailey and colleagues (2003) explained, this student group need(s) to be addressed as a distinct sub-population of occupational sub-baccalaureates for policy and program considerations (p. 44).
Prior studies have not compared the characteristics of occupational certificate students, specifically, across the public and for-profit sectors. But for-profit institutions typically enroll a large percentage of lower income and racial/ethnic minority students (Deming et al., 2012, 2013; Mullin, 2010). Chungs (2012) analysis of data from the 1988 National Educational Longitudinal Study found that for-profit students had higher rates of absenteeism in high school and parents who were less likely to be involved in their education. Using the same data set as the present study (i.e., BPS:04/09), though a different sample, one study found that, compared with students in the public sector, for-profit students were disproportionately older, female, African American, Hispanic, and very low income (Deming et al., 2012).
FINANCING A CERTIFICATE
One reason certificate programs are an attractive option for lower income students is the relatively short amount of time required to complete this credential, which in turn can reduce the total costs of attending college (Bosworth, 2011). Most certificate students, however, still depend on financial aid to pursue and complete this credential (Hirschy et al., 2011; Miller, 2014). This is particularly true for certificate students attending for-profit colleges. The average annual tuition and fees charged by public community colleges ($3,347) for a full-time student is substantially lower than at for-profit institutions ($15,230) (College Board, 2013). To cover the high tuition rates, for-profit students rely heavily on federal assistance in the form of Pell Grants and loans. Notably, whereas for-profits enrolled 12% of all U.S. college students in 20082009, the sector accounted for 24% of Pell Grant disbursements and 26% of federal student loan disbursements (Deming et al., 2013).
The majority of all certificate students borrow in order to persist until graduation. In 20112012, the proportion of certificate graduates who had taken out a student loan (66%) trailed only those students completing bachelors degrees (69%) (Miller, 2014). But there were sizable differences in borrowing across institutional sectors; 86% of certificate students graduating from for-profits borrowed, compared with only 36% of graduates from the public sector. Although the samples were not limited to certificate students, several recent studies have found that, after controlling for student characteristics, borrowers attending for-profit colleges had higher levels of debt and were more likely to default that public sector students (Belfield, 2013; Deming et al., 2012). The inability of students in these career-focused programs to repay their federal loans, particularly at for-profit colleges, has been a key driver of gainful employment regulations.
Defaulting on a student loan carries long-lasting financial consequences and may be particularly burdensome for certificate students, considering that many of these students are very low income. Discouragingly, one study found that in 2009, borrowers graduating with a certificate were just as likely to default on their loans (17%) as borrowers across all institutional sectors who dropped out before completing their degree (Nguyen, 2012). Compared with borrowers across all sectors who had dropped out, the default rates were actually higher for borrowers who earned a certificate from a less-than-four-year for-profit institution (19%). These findings underscore the need to more carefully examine federal loan use, debt levels, and default rates for occupational certificate students as a function of the type of institution they attend.
STUDENT SUCCESS AND CERTIFICATE COMPLETION
Research identifying the factors affecting persistence and program completion among certificate students is scarce. Most extant research has focused on the labor market returns associated with holding a certificate versus other levels of educational attainment (e.g., Bailey & Belfield, 2013; Bailey, Kienzl, & Marcotte, 2004; Bosworth, 2010; Carnevale et al., 2012; Grubb, 1997, 2002). Although beyond the scope of this study to systematically review this body of literature, in general, findings from this research suggest that certificate holders in most fields typically earn a higher wage premium than high school graduates. A smaller percentage of certificate holders (in high-demand fields) earn more than workers with associates and, in some cases, even bachelors degrees (Carnevale et al., 2012). Important caveats within these findings are that gender, length of program instruction, and field of study can exert a significant influence on the earnings of certificate holders.
A handful of studies, though now dated, have examined the enrollment outcomes of certificate students attending community colleges. Using data from BPS:89 and BPS:96, one study found that certificate students were more likely to achieve their educational goals within six years (48% earned a certificate, 6% earned a more advanced degree or transferred), compared with students pursuing associates degrees (Alfonso et al., 2005). Being married, interrupting enrollment, and high levels of working had a negative effect on the completion, whereas going to school for a longer period of time had a positive effect. Using data from BPS:89, another study found that, compared with their White peers in certificate programs, Hispanic students were as likely to have completed a certificate or transferred to a four-year institution, a finding the author described as promising in terms of promoting equity of educational attainment (Alfonso, 2006).
In recent years, a growing number of studies have compared differences in student outcomes across the public and for-profit sectors (Celleni, 2012; Deming et al., 2012, 2013). Most of these studies, however, focused on labor market outcomes rather than persistence and credential completion and did not focus exclusively on certificate students. Using BPS:04/09 data, Deming and colleagues (2012) found that students at for-profit institutions had a higher probability of completing their certificate, compared with students attending community colleges. But it is important to note the researchers classified several types of institutions as community colleges (i.e., public two-year, public less-than-two-year, private two-year nonprofit), which could mask differences in certificate completion rates across these institutional types. The present study adds to the literature by focusing specifically on a sample of students enrolled in career-focused certificate programs. Moreover, as the study results will show, there is value in examining certificate student outcomes not only across the public and for-profit sectors but also across public sector institutions (i.e., public two-year; public less-than-two-year).
In sum, there is a dearth of research on the experiences and enrollment behaviors of students pursuing occupational certificates. Most studies have focused on the earnings premium associated with holding this credential compared with other levels of educational attainment. Prior research has not disaggregated nationally representative data on occupational certificate students to compare key outcomes as a function of the institutional sector where they choose to pursue this credential. The present study aimed to address these gaps in the literature and inform public policies and institutional practices that increase the rates of success among students in career-focused certificate programs.
Researchers have applied a wide array of theoretical perspectives and conceptual models to examine college student persistence. These frameworks are often grounded in seminal work by Tinto (1975) and Spady (1970) and have been adapted to examine the success of a particular subpopulation of students. Although students pursuing certificates are a unique subpopulation and differ in many ways from students pursuing more traditional academic degrees (Bailey et al., 2003), most prior research has not applied a theoretical or conceptual framework to better understand the experiences of this student population. To address this gap in the literature, Hirschy et al. (2011) proposed a conceptual model of success for students enrolled in occupational programs at community colleges. This model represents an important contribution to the literature because it gives explicit attention to the unique needs and educational experiences of occupational students. The authors suggested that researchers can empirically test this model to advance the conceptualization of persistence in sub-baccalaureate occupational education (p. 314).
Accordingly, the present study adapted this conceptual model to examine the experiences and outcomes of students enrolled in occupational certificate programs across the public and for-profit sectors. The model comprises four interrelated constructsstudent characteristics, college environment, local community environment, and student successwhich are described in the sections that follow. Given the comprehensiveness of the proposed model, no single study can examine and account for all the factors that are hypothesized to affect the success of certificate students. This study, therefore, relied on the model to guide the selection of variables from the BPS:04/09 data set and situate the key findings from the analyses. It is worth noting that, due in large part to the dearth of prior research on the experiences of occupational students, many of the constructs and variables proposed by the model have not been empirically tested. The present study represents one of the first empirical investigations to apply this conceptual model in an attempt to advance our understanding of students pursuing occupational certificates.
In Hirschy and colleagues (2011) conceptual model, student characteristics are categorized as either stable (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, age, parents level of education, ability to pay, precollege preparation) or malleable (e.g., disposition and skills, educational intentions, employment goals), with the latter potentially influenced by the college environment. The sociodemographic variables are included in the model because research shows that the profile of occupational students often differs from their peers in academic majors (Alfonso et al., 2005; Levesque et al., 2008). The present study compared certificate students across the public and for-profit sectors on the following sociodemographic measures available in BPS:04/09: gender, race/ethnicity, age, income status, and parents highest level of education. Students precollege academic preparation was captured by variables indicating whether the student had earned a high school diploma versus a GED and whether he or she had delayed enrollment into college after high school.
The models attention to malleable characteristics recognizes that occupational students enter the college with varying levels of prior exposure to careers and that their educational and employment goals can change during their time at the institution. Institution-level data, or surveys of students within particular certificate programs, may be required to sufficiently capture many of the malleable constructs proposed by the model (i.e., self-efficacy, career knowledge). But regarding students educational intentions, the present study utilized a BPS variable that asked whether the student intended to complete his or her certificate program. Hirschy and colleagues (2011) explained that occupational students may seek to take a single course, acquire industry credentials, or enroll in a program until they find suitable employment (p. 312). This variable, therefore, identified the students intention to persist until completion of his or her certificate.
COLLEGE AND LOCAL COMMUNITY ENVIRONMENT
The college environment and local community constructs overlap and can serve as sources of support, and challenge, for students in occupational programs. The local community refers to support through services that are community based (e.g., child care, transportation, Workforce Investment Act), as well as support the students may receive from their family or workplace. Understanding how these services help and hinder the success of certificate students is an area for future research. Three subconstructs represent the college environment: academic and social integration, career integration, and campus support. Prior research has found that traditional measures of campus integration are not always applicable for the nontraditional students who populate certificate programs (Bean & Metzner, 1985). Therefore, recognizing that occupational students often spend little time on campus outside of class, the model posits that the classroom provides the most promising location for their academic and social integration. This includes the frequency of classroom contact, types of courses taken, and grades earned. BPS variables used to capture academic and social integration included students enrollment intensity (i.e., full time or part time), type of certificate program, and cumulative college GPA.
Career integration is an important source of support for certificate students as they become socialized into their chosen occupational field. These career-related experiences can occur on or off campus and may be reflected by formal academic instruction, cocurricular work experiences, and partnerships between local employers and the college. In this study, a BPS variable indicating whether the student worked off-campusand, if so, for how many hours each weekwas used as a proxy for career integration. But future studies should examine the impact that career-focused practicums, internships, and job placement services have on the success of students in occupational certificate programs.
Campus support services hypothesized to positively impact the success of occupational students include academic advising, clear academic pathways, and financial support. In the present study, the primary focus within this construct was on understanding differences in students financial support across institutional sectors. Finances are a critically important issue for lower income students in certificate programs, given that prior research has consistently found financial constraints to be a primary cause of student dropout (Chen, 2008; Walpole, 2003). The study included BPS variables estimating the average annual tuition and net price (after receiving grant aid) paid by students in the sample. Measures capturing certificate students utilization of federal financial aid (i.e., FAFSA filing rates, Pell Grant receipt, and loan receipt) were analyzed, with particular attention given to borrowers debt levels and repayment status.
Each of the constructs described in the preceding paragraphs is posited to directly and indirectly influence student success, which can take a variety of forms for this student population. Certificate students are often pragmatic in their enrollment behaviors and withdraw after taking particular courses of interest (Lohman & Dingerson, 2005). Recognizing that program completion is often not the objective for occupational students, the conceptual models success construct more broadly reflects the extent to which these students meet their own educational goals for enrolling (e.g., completing particular courses, attaining employment in the field, earning a credential). In addition, transferring to another college can also be an indicator of success, given that a growing number of certificate graduates use these credentials as a stepping stone to further their education (Carnevale et al., 2012). In the present study, BPS variables indicating whether the student had completed a certificate, transferred to another postsecondary institution, and/or earned a more advanced credential (e.g., associates or bachelors degree) were used to measure student success.
DATA SOURCE AND SAMPLE
The data analyzed in this study were derived from the Beginning Postsecondary Student Study (BPS:04/09) conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. This data set represents a national sample of first-time-in-college students who enrolled in higher education during the 20032004 academic year and tracks their educational progress over a six-year period. For the purposes of this study, the sample consisted of students who began their postsecondary careers at a community or technical college (public two-year; unweighted n = 290),1 career or technical center (public less-than-two-year; unweighted n = 390), or a sub-baccalaureate private for-profit institution (for-profit two-year, or less-than-two-year; unweighted n = 1,090) 2 during the 20032004 academic year and were enrolled in an occupational certificate program (total unweighted n = 1,770). The sample represented approximately 1.4 million first-time-in-college occupational certificate students when the survey weights were applied.
The vast majority of sub-baccalaureate certificates are offered in occupational, rather than academic, fields of study. In 20072008, certificates in academic fields accounted for less than 3% of all certificates awarded nationally (Bosworth, 2010). Students pursuing academic certificates differ from occupational students in terms of their demographic characteristics, and academic certificates generally produce smaller labor market returns (Bosworth, 2010). Therefore, this study focused specifically on students pursuing certificates in occupational fields of study. Our sample excluded the small number of certificate students in the BPS data set who were enrolled in academic fields of study. Choy and Horns (1992) classification system was used to differentiate between occupational and academic fields of study. Examples of the academic programs excluded from the sample included certificates in education, humanities, and the social and behavioral sciences. The conceptual model guiding this study focuses specifically on students in occupational majors, providing further rationale for the decision to exclude these academic majors from the analysis.
To provide context for our results, it is important to understand differences in certificate programs at each of the sectors included in this analysis. For-profits classified as less-than-two-year postsecondary institutions, and public career and technical centers (i.e. less than two-year), almost exclusively award certificates. Prior research has often classified these public career and technical centers as community colleges, but our analysis reveals there are some key differences between certificate students across these two public institutional types. More similar to community colleges, for-profits classified as two-year institutions typically offer a mix of associates degrees and certificates. In 2007, for example, about 64% of all awards conferred by for-profit two-year institutions were certificates (Horn & Li, 2009; Mullin, 2011). During that same year, certificates represented about 40% of all awards granted by community colleges. The shorter length of certificate programs at the less-than-two-year colleges, along with a more institutional-focused mission, may naturally lead to higher completion rates for students at for-profits (Mullin, 2011) and public career and technical centers. Conversely, certificate training is one of multiple missions carried out by community colleges, which diverts some institutional resources and attention away from these programs (Bailey & Belfield, 2013).
The conceptual model (Hirschy et al., 2011) and prior research on certificate students guided the selection of variables. These variables were organized into the following categories based on the major constructs of the conceptual model: student characteristics (i.e., gender, age, race/ethnicity, income status, parents level of education, high school diploma vs. GED, educational goal); college and local community environment (i.e., enrollment intensity, field of study, college GPA, hours worked per week, level of unmet need after receiving financial aid, institutional type); and student success (i.e., completion/transfer vs. dropout/still enrolled). All the independent variables were measured during the base year of the BPS survey (i.e., 20032004 academic year). Descriptive statistics and coding for each of these variables are presented in Table 1.
The second set of descriptive analyses examined how occupational certificate students finance higher education. These variables are presented in Table 2 and included measures related to institutional costs (e.g., average tuition, net price), financial aid receipt (i.e., FAFSA filing, Pell Grant status), and borrowing and repayment behaviors (i.e., proportion of students using loans, average debt levels, repayment status). The variables related to institutional costs and financial aid receipt were measured during the 20032004 academic year. For certificate students who took out loans, their repayment status as of 2009 is presented in Table 2.
For the outcome models predicting student success, the dependent variable indicated the students enrollment status at the conclusion of his or her sixth academic year (i.e., 20082009). Student success was first measured by a binary outcome and was coded as follows: 0 = dropped out or still enrolled; and 1 = earned a certificate, earned a more advanced degree, or transferred to another institution. Similar to Alfonso et al. (2005), we categorized the small proportion of students (8.5%) who were still enrolled (without having earned a credential) in 2009 as nonsuccess because certificate programs are intended to be completed relatively quickly, and not completing within six years may signal potential problems. The conceptual model (Hirschy et al., 2011) provided the rationale for including lateral and vertical transfer as measures of success. To detect potential differences between students who attained a certificate and those who transferred, sensitivity analysis was used to examine student success using three enrollment outcomes and was coded as follows: 0 = dropped out or still enrolled; 1 = transferred to another institution; and 2 = earned a certificate (or a more advanced degree).
Descriptive statistics were used to answer the first and second research questions. Given that limited research has been conducted on occupational certificate students, the goal of these analyses was to provide a better understanding of student characteristics, financing strategies, and enrollment outcomes across the institutional sectors. Proportions are used to describe the categorical variables, and means are provided for the continuous measures.
Two separate sets of outcome models were employed to examine student success. First, logistic regression was used because the initial dependent variable of interest was dichotomous (i.e., attained/transferred vs. dropped out/still enrolled). The sample for the first logistic model included the full sample of students from all three institutional sectors. For the second logistic regression, the sample was restricted to students at for-profit institutions. The final logistic regression model was limited to students attending public institutions (i.e., community and technical colleges, career and technical centers). The smaller sample sizes in BPS of certificate students at public institutions did not allow for separate regressions to be conducted for the public two-year and public less-than-two-year institutions.
Results from the descriptive analyses and logistic regressions suggested potential differences between the characteristics of students who attained a certificate, as compared with students who transferred. Therefore, the final set of analyses employed a multinomial regression model as a form of sensitivity analyses and examined three different enrollment outcomes (i.e., dropped out/still enrolled, transferred, attained) as of 2009. The same individual-level variables were included in all the logistic and multinomial regression models. An indicator of the institutional sector was included in the multi-institution models to detect potential differences in success outcomes across sectors after controlling for student characteristics and college experiences. The regression coefficients for each logistic regression model are presented in Table 3 as odds ratios, along with their corresponding 95% confidence interval.
As recommended with all complex and/or multistage cluster sample data sets, weights and design effects were used to account for the oversampling of certain groups and clusters of homogeneity within sampling levels (Thomas & Heck, 2001). Because BPS:04/09 was the data set used in this study, the recommended best practices for analyzing NCES data sets were employed (Hahs-Vaughn, 2006). All statistical analyses utilized the survey weight and adjusted design effect, and were conducted using Stata 12.
When interpreting results from this study, it is important to remember that the sample comprises certificate students who enrolled in higher education for the first time in 20032004. Two thirds of certificate holders pursue their certificate in the years immediately after graduating from high school and during the early years of their careers (Carnevale et al., 2012). However, certificate programs also attract older adults with prior college experience, including displaced workers and employees returning to update their job skills. Several studies show that about one third of certificate holders nationally also hold a higher postsecondary credential (Bailey & Belfield, 2013; Carnevale et al., 2012). The experiences and outcomes of certificate students who have previously attended college and/or earned a postsecondary credential are not captured in the BPS data set. Findings from the current study pertain only to those students who enrolled in an occupational certificate program as their first attempt at higher education.
A common limitation associated with using secondary data sets such as BPS is that the analysis is limited to the existing variables collected by the survey. The omission of potentially important predictor variables during data analysis can result in omitted variable bias and model misspecification (Celleni, 2008). As other researchers have noted, the duration of the certificate program (i.e., short term, medium term, long term) is not specified in the data set, making it challenging to detect differences in student outcomes as a function of program length (Bosworth, 2011). In addition, although BPS:04/09 does contain several measures related to employment (e.g., unemployment status, employed in field of study) that may be particularly useful in studying this population, a large percent of responses to these measures were missing for the sample analyzed in this study (often 75% missing cases or higher).
One objective of this study was to compare student experiences and outcomes across the public and for-profit sectors. Preliminary descriptive analysis revealed that occupational certificate students attending for-profit two-year, and less-than-two-year, institutions shared similar demographic characteristics. Therefore, consistent with an approach used by several prior studies (Deming et al., 2013), these two classifications of sub-baccalaureate for-profit institutions were combined for the purposes of statistical analysis. One limitation of this approach, however, is that aggregating the data in this manner could mask potential differences in outcomes between certificate students attending two-year, versus less-than-two-year, for-profit colleges. Future research in this area may benefit from further disaggregating by institutional classification and type. Relatedly, differences in the student body characteristics across the public and for-profit sectors can influence students college experiences and outcomes. Whereas the regression analyses in this study accounted for institutional sector, future research could apply more advanced statistical techniques (e.g., propensity score matching) to match similar certificate students across sectors as a function of their background characteristics.
Last, the outcome measures used in this study to determine student success likely underestimate the actual rates of educational goal attainment among sub-baccalaureate certificate students. As previously stated, students often enroll in occupational certificate programs seeking to upgrade their job skills in order to secure gainful employment or a promotion at their current job. A large number of students enroll in certificate programs with no intention, or desire, to ever complete this credential (Lohman & Dingerson, 2005). Although data on the employment outcomes of these drop in students can be difficult to obtain, these data are needed to develop a clearer understanding of how this occupational training affects their employment status and earnings.
Table 1 provides descriptive statistics for the sample of first-time-in-college students enrolled in occupational certificate programs. Across the entire sample, the largest proportions of the students were female (68.1%), White (46.1%), age 20 or younger (40.5%), and independent for financial aid purposes (51%), and belong to the very lowest income quartile (49.2%). A considerable proportion of these students (28%) had earned a GED rather than a high school diploma, and 70.4% delayed enrollment from high school into college by one year or more. A total of 58% of the students held employment outside the college while pursuing their certificate. Health care (33%) was the most common field of study, followed by programs classified as other vocational/technical (28.9%) and students who had not formally declared a major (26.6%). Only a small proportion of certificate students were enrolled in programs classified as STEM (4%) or business (7.5%). Six years after initial enrollment, 34.5% of students had dropped out, 57% had attained their certificate (or a more advanced degree), and 8.5% were still enrolled but had yet to complete their certificate.
But the results are best understood by comparing differences in students background characteristics and college experiences as a function of the type of postsecondary institution where they chose to pursue their certificate. Approximately 3 out of every 4 (74%) certificate students attending for-profit institutions are female, and a much larger proportion are non-White (64.2%) compared with community colleges (35.1%) and career and technical centers (27.7%). For-profits enroll the largest proportion of traditional-age college students who did not delay enrollment into higher education after leaving high school. Notably, the majority of certificate students attending for-profits belonged to the very lowest income quartile (58.9%). A larger proportion of mid-high and high income students were enrolled at community colleges (40%) and career and technical centers (37.1%), compared with only 11% of such students at for-profit institutions. Another notable difference between the public colleges and private for-profit institutions was that most students at for-profits (87.1%) attended college on a full-time basis (almost twice the proportion as at community colleges), and a larger proportion (45%) of for-profit students did not work while pursuing their certificate.
Regarding enrollment outcomes from the first institution attended, a larger proportion of certificate students at community colleges (17.4%) eventually transferred to another institution, compared with students beginning at career and technical centers (7.8%) and for-profit (10.9%) colleges. When examining attainment rates across all institutions (i.e., including students who transferred from the first college they attended) six years after students initial enrollment, for students who began at community and for-profit colleges, the attainment rates (56.9% and 55%, respectively) and the dropout rates (33.4% and 36.1%, respectively) were similar. Students who began their certificate program at a public career and technical center had the highest attainment (68.4%) and lowest dropout (27.3%) rates.
PAYING FOR COLLEGE
The second research question aimed to more carefully examine issues related to the financing of higher education by certificate students (see Table 2). About half of the students attending community colleges (56.3%) and career and technical centers (50.1%) indicated that one of the reasons they chose to attend the institution was that it was affordable, compared with 33.6% of for-profit students. The average tuition paid by certificate students during the 20032004 academic year at community colleges ($1,112) was lower than the amounts paid by career and technical center students ($2,219) and private for-profit students ($8,138). Net costs reflects the total amount of out-of-pocket expenses a student paid after receiving all grant aid and provides a clearer picture of true costs to the student. The average net cost in 20032004 was lower at community colleges ($685), compared with career and technical centers ($1,132) and for-profit institutions ($5,385).
With regard to applying for federal financial aid, a smaller proportion of community (58.8%) and career and technical center (78.8%) students filed a FAFSA compared with for-profit students (97%). The majority of certificate students at for-profits (89.6%) received a Pell Grant in 20032004, compared with career and technical centers (54.5%) and community colleges (32.2%). Not surprisingly, the utilization of federal loans varied greatly between the public and for-profit institutions. Whereas 84.7% of the for-profit certificate students took out federal loans during 20032004, the proportion of borrowers was much lower at community colleges (28.2%) and career and technical centers (24.2%). In 20032004, among certificate students who did take out federal loans, the average amount borrowed by students attending community colleges ($2,479) was smaller than the average debt assumed by career and technical center ($4,612) and for-profit ($4,010) students.
Perhaps most noteworthy were the differences across institutional sectors with regard to borrowers federal student loan repayment status six years after initial enrollment. For both community colleges and the career and technical centers, the number of students who were in deferment or who had default on their loan by 2009 was very small. Approximately 6% of community college students and 1% of the career and technical center students had defaulted; however, these percentages should be interpreted with caution because of the small sample sizes for these groups. In contrast to the public sector institutions, higher proportions of certificate students attending for-profits were still repaying their loan debt (35.2%) and had deferred their loans (10.8%) or defaulted (20.8%) by 2009.
The final analyses examined the factors associated with student success within six years of initial enrollment. Table 3 presents results from the three logistic regression models. For these models, success was operationally defined as having completed a certificate (or more advanced degree) or transferred to another institution; nonsuccess was defined has having dropped out or still being enrolled as of 2009. The first model included students from all three institutional sectors; the second model restricted the sample to students attending public institutions (i.e., community colleges, career and technical centers); and the third model examined students attending for-profit institutions.
For the full sample, results indicated that Hispanic students had 71% higher odds of success compared with White students. Compared with students in the lowest-income group, students in the mid-low (103% higher odds), mid-high (178% higher odds), and highest-income (121% higher odds) groups all had a greater likelihood for success. Students majoring in fields classified as Other Vocational/Technical had 43% lower odds of success compared with students who did not declare a major during their first academic year. Having higher amounts of unmet financial need after accounting for financial aid increased the odds of success by 40%. Certificate students with a college GPA of 3.0 or higher, compared with those with less than a 3.0, had 54% higher odds of success. Compared with students pursuing certificates at for-profit institutions, students attending public career and technical centers had 88% higher odds of success.
Relatively few variables were statistically significant in the regression model limited to certificate students attending public institutions (i.e., community colleges, career and technical centers). In comparison with White students, Black students had 63% lower odds of success. Students from the mid-low (79% higher odds) and mid-high (108% higher odds) income group, compared with those in the very lowest income category, had a greater likelihood of earning a certificate or transferring. Compared with certificate students who had not officially declared a major, students pursuing their certificate in a health-related field of study had 58% lower odds of success. When controlling for all other background and college experience variables, there was not a significant difference in the likelihood of success based on the whether the student attended a community college, versus a career and technical center.
Results from the logistic regression that was limited to certificate students attending for-profit institutions revealed that Hispanic students, compared with White students, had 126% higher odds of success at these institutions. Compared with the lowest income group, each of the other income quartiles had much higher odds of earning a certificate or transferring, and the odds of success increased as students income level increased. Students with higher levels of unmet financial need had 53% higher odds of success. Certificate students who carried a GPA of 3.0 or higher had 70% higher odds of success as compared with students with a cumulative GPA of 2.9 or lower.
Finally, as a form of sensitivity analysis, a multinomial logit model including all three institutional sectors was used to examine potential differences in the outcomes of certificate attainment, compared with having transferred. Compared with students who had dropped out or were still enrolled, the results for students who had attained a certificate (or a more advanced degree) were consistent with the findings from the logistic regression models. Therefore, the results from this model are discussed here rather than presented in a separate table. Students with higher incomes and a higher GPA were more likely to have earned their certificate. The most notable findings for the attainment outcome versus dropping out was that compared with students at for-profit institutions, students beginning at a community college (OR=2.11) and a career and technical center (OR=2.38) were more likely to have completed a credential. With regard to transfer, only two predictor variables were significant. Older students (OR=.55) and those who indicated that their goal was to complete a certificate (OR=.66) had lower odds of transferring compared with dropping out. Controlling for all other variables, there were no statistically significant differences across institutional sectors with regard to students likelihood of transferring versus dropping out.
DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS
Using nationally representative data from the 2000s, results from this study show that students pursuing occupational certificates enter the higher education system with numerous factors that place them at heightened risk for nonsuccess. A large proportion of these students are racial/ethnic minorities, nontraditional college age, very low income, and working more than 20 hours per week. Most of these students have delayed enrollment into college after high school by one year or more, and almost one third earned a GED rather than a high school diploma. In short, these are student groups that have experienced limited success in traditional degree pathways, but for whom the completion of a postsecondary credential may be particularly important for improving their overall quality of life (Bosworth, 2011).
The conceptual model (Hirschy et al., 2011) suggests that, from an institutional perspective, identifying the characteristics of students enrolling in these occupational programs is a critical first step in developing tailored support services that increase student success. Compared with the public sector colleges, for-profit institutions enroll a larger proportion of certificate students who had the following characteristics: female, African American, Hispanic, traditional college age, belonging to the lowest income quartile, attending college full time, and not working while pursuing their certificate. Students enrolled in the public sector colleges share more common traits compared with the for-profit certificate students, but there are some notable differences across the community colleges and career centers. Community colleges serve a greater proportion of certificate students who are African American, traditional college age, and attend college on a part-time basis. Comparatively, career and technical centers serve a greater proportion of students who are Hispanic, are age 30 and older, and attend college full-time.
Although 90% of the for-profit students belonged to the two lowest income quartiles (with 60% belonging to the lowest quartile), certificate students attending public institutions placed a greater emphasis on affordability as a primary reason for attending their institution. Numerous studies have documented the high rates of borrowing and loan default among students at for-profit institutions (Belfield, 2013; Deming et al., 2013; Nguyen, 2012; Tierney, 2013). In our sample, more than 4 out of every 5 certificate students at for-profit institutions took out a federal loan during their first year of enrollment. The rates of borrowing were more than three times higher at for-profits compared with certificate students attending a community college or career and technical center. More concerning, however, is that about 21% of the borrowers at for-profits had defaulted on their loans within six years of initial enrollment. Loan default often results in serious and long-lasting financial consequences, including wage garnishments, credit report damage, inability to receive federal financial aid in the future, denial of a professional license, and legal action (Gladieux & Perna, 2005). These consequences may be particularly detrimental to the future well-being of low-income students, who represent the overwhelming majority of occupational certificate students at for-profit colleges.
Our results suggest that during the time period under investigation (i.e., 20042009), occupational certificate students beginning their postsecondary careers in the public sector had higher rates of completion within six years than students who enrolled at a private for-profit college. The finding that nearly 70% of the career and technical center students successfully completed a credential appears promising; however, additional research is needed to understand if the short-term certificates awarded by these institutions consistently result in higher returns in the labor market. After controlling for relevant background and college experience variables, there was not a statistically significant difference between the success rates of community college students, compared with students at the career and technical centers. However, in the full regression model that includes all three institutional sectors, career and technical center students had higher odds of success compared with for-profit students.
For-profit institutions, compared with the public sector colleges, serve a larger percentage of occupational certificate students who are very low income and racial/ethnic minorities. But the for-profit students in our sample were more likely than the public sector students to be traditional college age, to enroll in college directly after high school, to pursue their certificate full-time, and not to work while attending collegefactors that are typically associated with an increased likelihood of completion. Additionally, many of the certificate programs offered by the less-than-two-year and two-year for-profit institutions are classified as one year or less in duration (Horn & Li, 2009; Mullin, 2010), which should result in increased completion rates.
Given the higher completion rates among the public sector students, in conjunction with the significantly higher rates of borrowing and loan default among students in the for-profit sector, results from this study support recommendations from prior research (Deming et al., 2013) that many students may find it a wiser financial investment to attend a public sector college. This may be particularly true for students pursuing an occupational certificate. Although public higher education in some states has allowed the for-profit sector to assume control of the certificate marketplace (Bosworth, 2011), the results from our analysis suggest that this approach could have the unintended consequences of increasing financial hardships and hindering postsecondary completion among students from less advantaged backgrounds.
Similar to prior multivariate analysis of attainment among students enrolled in sub-baccalaureate certificate programs (Alfonso, 2006; Alfonso et al., 2005), relatively few factors from our regression models were strong predictors of completion among this student population. A notable exception is that students income status was a strong predictor of success across both the public and for-profit sectors. The expansion of policies aimed at making public community colleges free (Fain, 2015; White House, 2015) could increase certificate enrollment and production by reducing the financial barriers faced by the lower income students who often populate these programs. Interestingly, Hispanic students at for-profit institutions had higher odds than White students of completion or transfer. This finding lends some support for prior research indicating that Hispanic students experienced greater rates of success in certificate programs than other racial/ethnic groups (Alfonso, 2006), but additional research is needed to determine why Hispanic certificate students were more likely to experience success at for-profit, compared with public sector, institutions.
The overall rates of transfer among this student population were higher than anticipated, particularly at community colleges, where almost 1 in every 5 beginning certificate students eventually transferred to another institution. Further analysis of the 17% of transfer students from community colleges revealed that about 5% were vertical transfers, whereas the other 12% were lateral transfers. Certificate programs have not traditionally been designed to facilitate transfer, but this trend corroborates that a growing number of students entering these programs use this training as a stepping stone to further educational pursuits (Carnevale et al., 2012). Ten percent of the certificate students in our sample had earned an associates or bachelors degree by 2009 (of which 7% first enrolled at a community college). Recent efforts to develop a U.S. education system that utilizes stackable credentialsin which students can obtain shorter term credentials while they continue to build on these credentials to access more advanced jobs and higher wages (Austin, Mellow, Rosin, & Seltzer, 2012)could be particularly well-suited for students in occupational certificate programs. Not surprisingly, results from the multinomial model indicated that the likelihood of transfer was lower among older students and among those who stated upon entry that their goal was to earn a certificate. But perhaps for some younger students who are less certain of their long-term educational goals, early success in a certificate program may warm up their educational aspirations.
Several studies have emphasized that community colleges, given their mission of providing open-access and affordable tuition, can play a particularly important role in improving success among certificate students (Bailey & Belfield, 2013; Bosworth, 2011). Scott-Clayton and Weiss (2011) suggested that community colleges can learn from, and replicate, the highly structured occupational programs at public technically focused colleges that often lead to higher completion rates. Citing the high certificate completion rates at the Tennessee Technology Centers, Bosworth (2011) explained that single block-scheduled programs (rather than enrollment in individual courses) facilitate success by encouraging full-time attendance. Students at these centers also progress based on their mastery of specific occupational competencies rather than seat time, and remedial education is built into the program. Most community colleges simply do not offer certificate programs with such completion-focused structure (Bosworth, 2011, p. 8). In addition, Bahr (2013) explained that large numbers of academically underprepared students withdraw from the community college because of their inability to successfully complete the remedial math sequence, even after multiple attempts. Before departing the college without any credential, Bahr suggested that these motivated students could be guided toward certificate programs with proven labor market value, as some occupational programs do not require math coursework. Collectively, these efforts could help create the type of college environment and support structures that the conceptual model (Hirschy et. al., 2011) projects will lead to increased student success.
The present study provides new information on students in certificate programs, but there remains much we do not know about this student population. To more accurately capture the rates of educational goal attainment among these students, better data are needed on the extent to which students leave prior to completion but having successfully met their goals for enrolling (Hirschy et al., 2011; Lohman & Dingerson, 2005). Prior research has focused on the economic, rather than social, returns to holding a certificate. But empirical evidence demonstrating positive social returns (e.g., community and civic engagement, better health behaviors) to certificates would strengthen the rationale for boosting certificate production nationally. Future work on certificate students can further explore constructs from the conceptual model (e.g., career integration, use of campus support services) that we were unable to examine in detail with the BPS:04/09 data set. Although several thoughtful explanations have been proposed (Deming et al., 2013), empirical evidence that helps explain why many low-income students choose to pursue their certificate at for-profits, rather than at lower cost public sector colleges, would represent a useful contribution to the literature.
Carnevale and colleagues (2012) explained that certificates with economic value are cost-effective, partly because they are the quickest education and job training awards offered by American higher education (p. 2). Students often choose to pursue an occupational certificate because of the relative length of time, money, and level of prerequisite education required to complete this credential, relative to other types of postsecondary awards (Florida College Access Network, 2012). Promisingly, there is evidence that many working adults and lower income and minority youth for whom success in traditional degree pathways has been elusive are completing certificate programs (Bosworth, 2011). Equipped with a better understanding of certificate students and their educational outcomes, colleges can begin to design better support services and program structures that address the unique needs of this growing student population (Hirschy et al., 2011). These institutional efforts, along with well-designed public policies that boost the production of high-quality certificates, could help strengthen the U.S. workforce and increase postsecondary attainment rates among students from less advantaged backgrounds.
1. All unweighted ns in this study are rounded to the nearest 10 per NCES data security guidelines.
2. Although some for-profit four-year institutions offer certificate programs, this student population is excluded from our analysis because the BPS data set included fewer than 10 cases of occupational certificate students in this sector.
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